When the COVID-19 pandemic settled in, I thought I would never laugh again. But then I saw myself on Zoom.
Who was this pale ogre with the bad haircut, shiny forehead and robust nose hair? Why was he talking so loud, fidgeting so nervously? And why was he living in that dark, untidy hovel? Before Zoom, I didn’t realize what a ludicrous mess I am.
These days, we live on Zoom, or its videoconferencing cousins — FaceTime, Google Meet, Webex, Zoho, RingCentral and so on.
But especially Zoom.
This week, the company announced that its revenues were up 369 percent from the previous year. Every day, more than 300 million people use the service, far more than any competitor. Zoom is how we do our jobs, send our kids to school, keep up with friends and family — all without leaving the comfort of home.
But convenience comes with a price. There is growing evidence that Zoom is making us anxious, weary and slightly different from our pre-COVID selves.
We talk 15 percent louder on Zoom, according to a 2019 study, and perhaps louder in general. We’ve stopped using hand gestures (nobody can see them anyway). We’ve lost our ability to read the facial and body-language cues that, in the physical-meeting era, kept us from talking over each other and saying things better left unsaid.
A new study by Stanford University researcher Jeffrey N. Bailensen found that we experience more stress on Zoom than we do in an in-person meeting. That’s because we’re on camera all the time — and expected to maintain eye contact with our interlocutors for much longer periods than we’re accustomed to.
At the same time, Bailensen noted, we’re deprived of those little tricks we use, almost without thinking, to make physical meetings more bearable. Trapped in the eye of Zoom, it’s harder to yawn, walk around, check our phones, get coffee, take a bathroom break, or roll our eyes at a stupid remark.
In fact, doing anything beyond sitting and staring can be dangerous. Just ask legal writer Jeffrey Toobin. He was fired by The New Yorker magazine in November after getting up to rearrange his privates when he thought the camera was off.
One of Zoom’s most soul-destroying features is that little square depicting us. It’s like a mirror that follows us around all day, compelling our attention but rarely rewarding it. We’re obsessing over our pimples, our lens-distorted noses, our double chins.
Also about the places we live. Why do they always look so cluttered? So boring? Should we have more books on view. Do their spines betray them as insufficiently serious?
A wildly popular Twitter site called Room Rater, launched by a former White House staffer and his sharp-eyed fiancee, assigns numerical scores to our backdrops. Conan O’Brian was slammed for his motel-quality curtains. Michele Obama got a perfect 10/10 for the crisp elegance of her desk and bookshelves. Room Rater seems to favor those who face a window or an unshaded lamp, with the rest of the room behind them, camera at eye level and brightness everywhere.
I failed the brightness test. So my kids, out of pity, got me a special clip-on light for my laptop. Took me awhile to figure out all the buttons. The other day, I was on a panel discussion when the organizer complained about the quality of my “look.” She replaced me with a still photo. I was crushed.
Still am. I used to speak at meetings easily, read the room, play to the crowd. Now I’m glued to that little image box, adjusting my posture, patting down stray wisps of hair and fiddling with that clip-on light. I think more about how I look than what I’m saying.
We’d better get used to all that. Even after the pandemic ends, many of us will continue working at home and spending much of our lives on Zoom. It’s too convenient, economical and energy-efficient, for our bosses and for our distant relatives, to abandon completely.
But perhaps indentured Zoomitude is not such a curse after all. After squinting and squirming under the camera’s merciless gaze, I have come to realize something. Videoconferencing isn’t just a tool. It’s God’s way of teaching us humility.